I recently met with new clients who happen to be religious people. The couple is very nice. In fact, they are wonderful people. But they struggle financially. Why? Do they have lousy jobs? Nope. They are great earners. Are they big spenders. Not really. They live very frugally except for the one item – a private, religious school. They strongly believe in sending their children to religious school at all costs – so they do.
You know the first question that Joan (the wife) asked when they came into my office?
“Should we refinance our mortgage to pay for our childrens’ education?”
They showed me the tuition they were paying to send their children to elementary school and I just about fell off my chair. The first thing that popped into my head was that I should start a school! With that kind of tuition, it looks like one of the great entrepreneurial ideas of our time!
I can understand their position, of course. Everyone has their own priorities and life isn’t all about money. But at what point do you draw the line? Would you pump all your money into a private school at the cost of your financial security and retirement? Investing in our kids is one of the best investments we can make. But does that mean mortgaging our future is the way to go?
My wife and I faced this question about 18 years ago. We lived in a nice area, but the public schools were not an option. We just didn’t feel comfortable sending our children to public school. The alternatives were to send the little ones to private religious school (in our case) or move.
We opted for the private religious school. The religious element wasn’t critical for us, but it was a nice add-on. In our situation, the cost difference between this private religious and a private secular school was insignificant. Our kids went there for three years, and then we decided it wasn’t worth the trade-off. We moved to a community with better public schools and, in our case, it worked out great.
Now, I have to admit that if the question is simply private versus good public schools, I have my answer. I’ve seen private schools first-hand and have yet to see a higher quality outcome from private versus public schools. Of course, many very successful people went to private schools. But there are plenty of successful people that come from public schools as well. That has been my experience at least. The cost of raising a child is high enough. I’ve never felt the need to make it more expensive.
But when it comes to private religious school, the equation changes. My experience tells me that people send their children to private religious school often without really considering the intended outcome. If you have a strong religious conviction and want to pass that along to the children, I get it.
But is sending your children to private religious school the best and most economical way to achieve your goal if you want to pass on your religious beliefs? I fear that most people who send their kids to these schools don’t even ask themselves these questions. Many people simply accept as fact that sending the kids to religious school is a better way to provide religious training so they start writing those big checks. And I’m not sure that’s always the case.
Again, if you can afford it, more power to you. But what if you can’t? What if you face the choice between saving for retirement or sending the kids to religious school?
What kind of message do you send to your kids when you fail to put anything aside for yourself or your future? Of course, depending on your own religious beliefs, this might be okay, but many religions also talk about personal responsibility. Is mortgaging your future consistent with that?
If you consider this question from a practical standpoint, the question you have to ask is, “will my child come out of religious school with a greater appreciation and respect for our religion than if she attends public school?” If that’s your main concern, that’s a fair question, and perhaps the most important one you need to ask yourself. But do you ask it? Do you consider the alternatives?
Is your desired outcome guaranteed by sending the kids to private religious school? Nope. Some people report less inclination to follow religious practices specifically because they went to religious school.
Are there moral and religious down sides to sending the kids to a school that saps all the family’s financial resources? I believe there could be.
The family that I met with has 3 wonderful kids in religious school – and no money. The family is deep in debt with no hope of getting out.
I’m not saying that religious school is a bad idea. I’m simply trying to get folks to consider it as one alternative rather than the only alternative.
When it comes to making financial decisions I just don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to make those decisions with blinders on. You may not face these same challenges, but you might have other “sacred cows” that you spend money on without really considering the alternatives and the cost.
When my daughter got into NYU and Berklee School of Music, my family thought I was a regular Scrooge for even suggesting we consider these schools as just alternatives. When I suggested that we consider the cost/benefit trade off, I quickly became persona non grata. They had a “sacred cow”. Luckily, I held my ground and they came to their senses. I was adamant that high cost college doesn’t equal high value career. When I got them engaged in the conversation, things went much better.
How do you side on the issue of religious school? I’m especially interested to hear from you if you do send your kids and find the cost a burden. If that describes you, what is your rationale?